Detroit –Watching Mitt Romney at an auto show is like watching Mike Huckabee in church or John McCain at the Naval Academy: It gives you a look at the man in a setting that is deeply meaningful to him, a setting that helps explain why he has led the life he has led.
So on the day before the Michigan primary, when voters here will tell Romney whether his damaged presidential campaign will go forward with some badly needed momentum, or whether it is too weakened to remain a serious contender, Romney heads to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit’s Cobo Center. There, Romney, whose father was CEO of American Motors, indulges one of his true loves: being around cars, talking about cars, and promoting the U.S. automotive industry.
“I’ve got cars in my bloodstream,” Romney says a little earlier in the day, in an address to the Detroit Economic Club. When he was a child, he recalls, his biggest thrill of the year was going to the auto show, even though his father, George Romney, made what was hands-down the unsexiest car on the market. “My dad was head of a car company, you know, he made Ramblers,” Romney says. “And we were escorted [to the auto show] with a police escort, motorcycles — awfully cool, even though we had to go in a Rambler.”
When he talks about cars, Romney often feels the need to apologize, just a little, for his father’s nerdy but reliable product. He tells the story of turning 60 last year, when his son Tagg came up to him with his birthday present, a set of car keys. What could it be? Romney wondered. A new Mustang? (Romney already drives one.) A Corvette? A Dodge Viper? Turns out it was a 1962 Rambler American, just like the one his father’s company made way back when. “My friends called it ‘Mrs. Romney’s grocery-getter,’“ Romney recalls.
So cars aren’t just a hobby for Romney. They are the memories of his young life in Michigan, before he moved to Massachusetts to go to school, achieve his own success in business, become governor, and now run for president. And when Romney heads to the auto show, with 200 of the shiniest cars in the world displayed before him, he’s not just back in Michigan. He’s back in time.
In Cobo Center, he wants to know everything about the latest models, which run heavy on the hybrid/environmental theme. “What are you forecasting for MPG on this?” he asks executives at the Chrysler exhibit, where he’s stopped to check out a new Aspen Hybrid SUV. “Is this the styling of the new Durango?” he asks a little later as he stops by another hybrid SUV. “I’ve had a Durango — does Josh still own my Durango? 110,000 miles, great car.”
Romney limits himself to the Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors exhibits — he wouldn’t risk political death by stopping at Toyota or Hyundai. And he takes care to explain that the Romney Fleet doesn’t play favorites among the American makers. “We’re loyal to each of the manufacturers,” he says; he has his Mustang, while his wife Ann has a Cadillac, there is the old Durango, plus a Chevy Silverado and a bunch of other cars owned by Tagg and Romney’s four other sons. And there’s the ‘62 Rambler.
Now, cars are at the center of Romney’s attempt to win the Michigan primary. His proposal to revive the auto industry forms the backbone of his plan to revive the Michigan economy. And that, in turn, forms the backbone of his plan to revive the Romney presidential candidacy. After losses in Iowa and New Hampshire — the states on which he built his early-victory strategy — Romney is trying desperately to grab a win in Michigan. If he does, he’ll be back up there with winners John McCain and Mike Huckabee. If he doesn’t, he’ll have yet another loss heading in to the important South Carolina primary on Saturday, where he’s expected to finish third. Even people sympathetic to Romney believe it would be hard for him to come back from that.
So Romney is running hard, and the issue is Michigan’s economy. It is here, in the midst of what is sometimes called a “one-state recession,” that Romney is selling his experience as a businessman and turnaround expert. McCain has all that national-security credibility, and Huckabee has the evangelicals — a significant group, although not large enough to propel him to victory — but Romney believes he has the business credibility to make him a winner.
His plan is to make the United States government a virtual partner of Ford, GM, and Chrysler. “If I’m president of this country, I will roll up my sleeves in the first 100 days I’m in office, and I will personally bring together industry, labor, Congressional and state leaders and together we will develop a plan to rebuild America’s automotive leadership,” Romney tells the Economic Club. “It will be a plan that works for Michigan and that works for the American taxpayer.”
The plan would involve easier-to-reach mileage standards, increased funding and extended tax breaks for research and development, worker health care reforms, and more. “Detroit can only thrive if Washington is an engaged partner, not a disinterested observer,” Romney says. “I am not open to a bail out, but I am open to a work out. Washington should not be a benefactor, but it can and must be a partner.”
Romney’s proposals might not be music to the ears of free-market conservatives who believe Detroit made its own problems and needs to fix itself. But it’s what a lot of people in Michigan want to hear. Later in the evening, Romney goes to his hometown suburb of Bloomfield, to the Shenandoah Country Club, to address the Oakland County Republican Party. The people there are Romney supporters, and they especially admire his business background. They feel Romney was right to go after John McCain over McCain’s comment that some lost auto industry jobs won’t come back. “He’s hitting it hard because McCain said those jobs are lost,” Greg Every, a businessman who owns three sports equipment stores in the Detroit area, tells me. “As a Republican, I was always taught to be a fighter, not a quitter. And I think Romney is hitting home hard with, ‘I’m going to fight for every one of these jobs.’ And I think you can. My dad worked for Ford for 30 years, and every year they’re cutting something out of his pension. And that’s because it’s not a level playing field, the Japanese pay less for their cars to come here, and Ford pays more. We have all this retired work force, and they don’t. The tables are not level, and it’s not fair for Michigan.”
From the beginning of his campaign, Romney has argued that he is the only candidate who can unite the three main elements of the Republican party: economic conservatives, national-security conservatives, and social conservatives. But Romney is really mostly an economic conservative; his foreign-policy credentials aren’t much, and his social conservatism — highlighted by the famed flip-flop over abortion — has earned him as many critics as fans. That hurt him in Iowa and New Hampshire, but on the last day of the campaign in Michigan, it’s economy, economy, economy, and that is where Romney is strongest.
Today is his test. If he can win anywhere, it is here. If he doesn’t, his campaign will be nearly over.